EMDR: An Answer to Complex Trauma

EMDR: An Answer to Complex Trauma

In its latest effort to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness, Leesburg Community Church hosted a workshop on trauma, its effects and treatment April 19.

Although trauma affects many, it can present itself in different and complex ways, Dr. Ed Lucas of the Wellness Connection said to workshop attendees.

Emotional symptoms are the most common way trauma manifests. Victims can experience heightened anxiety, irritability, mood swings, elevated heart rates and difficulty concentrating. When patients go to therapy, a common treatment they may come across is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. The goal of CBT is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and therefore change the way they feel.

However, Lucas said CBT does not work well with complex trauma like childhood traumas or ongoing trauma.

“Complex trauma isn’t rational, it’s emotional,” Lucas said. “When you grow up in an abusive situation, you grow up adapting to the world being a dangerous place. You see the world through that filter.”

Instead, Lucas recommends eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980’s. This type of therapy stimulates both hemispheres of the brain through eye movement, sound or touch, which allows patients to tap into implicit memories stored in the unconscious. Then patients focus on a detail or feeling of the memory and can then begin to process the memory and feelings, Lucas said. Once the memories are fully processed, they lose their emotional charge.

“We can’t change what happened in the past but we can change how we feel about it and how we hold it in in our memory,” he said.

Unlike hypnosis, which has patients relive experiences, EMDR feels more like an out of body experience, Lucas said. Patients can take a step back, notice what comes up and in a safe and calm state, as they gain insights to their experiences and behavior.

Lucas first experienced EMDR with his wife’s therapist who was also a family friend. She sat him down for a session and he had no idea what would come up. As he went through the EMDR, a dream he’d had after his mother died when he was 14 came back to him.

In the dream, he walked through a morgue to a metal door. When he’d originally had the dream, he hadn’t been able to open the door. But while doing EMDR, he finally did, revealing his mother’s body. The experience helped him find peace with his mother’s sudden death from decades back. Lucas immediately knew he wanted to be trained in EMDR and spent his own money to do so.

“There was a piece of this that felt so deep, I felt like not everything could be resolved,” Lucas said. “Then I went through the process and I felt like it was finished.”

Lucas said that if patients only need to finish processing a single traumatic event, one to two sessions of EMDR may be all that’s necessary. However, if patients have more than one traumatic event to process, it could take up to eight sessions, he said.

Pastor Doug Wall said he hopes workshops like this help break down the stigma of mental health, inform people of different resources, and give those in need more hope.

The next Leesburg Community Church Hope for Mental Health workshop will be on April 26. The workshop is targeted for parents and caregivers of children and will provide information about mental health in children and teens,